“The Story of Our Lives” is a 201-line narration divided into seven numbered sections. Although the title suggests a history, the poem plays with the discrepancy between what one would expect in a story and the speaker’s reluctance or inability to share substantial narrative details. To be sure, traditional narrative elements exist: The speaker reveals that the poem takes place in a room that looks out onto a street, and there are characters. The plural pronouns “we” and “our” in the poem hint at a married couple whose life is not so much told as lived, a life upon which the speaker meditates. Another important “character” exists and speaks in the poem: the book that contains the story of their lives from which the poet quotes; fifty-six lines (28 percent of the total) are italicized as coming from this book. In other words, another important tension in the poem lies between the story in the book that the speaker quotes and the story that arises from his own meditations.
The poem’s seven sections suggest an ironic, archetypal period of creation. Although stories usually record past events, this poem, written mostly in the present tense, presents an unfolding of events. Sections 1 and 2 both begin with the line “We are reading the story of our lives.” In the first section, the couple is sitting on the couch reading, “hoping for something/ something like mercy or change.” The first notes of barrenness are sounded: “it would seem/ the book of our lives is empty.” In the second and longest section (forty-six lines), the speaker and the woman continue to read and write (live) the story of their lives as the theme of separation is introduced: “when I lean back I imagine/ my life without you, imagine moving/ into another life, another book.”
A dreamlike mood pervades the third and fourth sections, while a tone of yearning pervades the fifth section in which the speaker says, “If only there were a perfect moment in the book.” Simultaneous with this yearning, however, is a desire to retreat: “Each moment is like a hopeless cause./ If only we could stop reading.” In the sixth and shortest section (sixteen lines), the book chronicles the contradiction between intent and inaction: “They would patch up their lives in secret:// They did nothing.” The final section ends by pointing toward hope as the speaker says “yes to everything” and the book records that “They were determined to accept the truth./ Whatever it was they would accept it./ The book would have to be written/ and would have to be read.”
Mark Strand’s “The Story of Our Lives” plays at pushing language to its limits. One device with which the poet attempts to accomplish this is the use of patterns of assertion and contradiction. Many lines blatantly run against each other: “so much seemed to vanish,/ so much seemed to come to life again.” In another instance, the characters vow to patch up their lives and then do nothing. When the speaker says, “I say yes to everything./ You cannot hear me,” one wonders what good a universal affirmation is if the person to whom he is speaking does not hear it. Toward the end of the poem, the couple is “horrified by their innocence,” and, two lines later, they are “determined to accept the truth”; the juxtaposition of active and passive reactions pushes language against itself.
A variation of this strategy is the use of sentences that contradict each other only if read in a certain way: “If only we could stop reading./ He never wanted to read another...
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book.” If the second clause is interpreted as meaning “he wanted to read only this book,” it contradicts the meaning “he was tired of reading all books.” Another instance of contradictory language based on interpretation is the assertion that “The book will not survive./ We are living proof of that.” Since the poem postulates that “they are the book,” how can they be living proof of the book not surviving? Yet another variation of this device of pressing language to its limits is seen in the tendency toward solipsism, the idea that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified: “We say it is ideal./ It is ideal.” What “we say” is truth. Another instance is the line “We study what we remember.” Memory and analysis seem to be contrasting rational functions.
These examples of language confronting itself in “The Story of Our Lives” show the surreal leanings of the poem. Strand suggests the play between the real and the imaginary: “The rugs, the furniture,/ seem almost imaginary now.”; the room looks onto a street but “There is no one there,/ no sound of anything”; and “The furniture in the room is never shifted.” The woman in the poem falls in love with the man across the street because she knows “that he would never visit.” The use of the absolute negatives “no” and “never” applied in these circumstances throws readers into a fantasy world where the language of their experiences is being applied to physical and social phenomena that do not follow. Everywhere in the poem, images of waking are set up against images of sleep and dreaming.
Strand’s minimalist style strips events and language to essentials. However, there is a troubling quality to these essentials. Taken alone, the assertions seem simple and reasonable enough, but Strand combines them in such a way as to create a distressing, alienated world. The cadence of simple sentences builds a surface rhythm of reasonableness. The author, however, couples images and assertions in such a way that readers feel the world undermining itself, shifting beneath them as if a constant, though subtle, earthquake was making their most basic assumptions unstable.